Most primary heads 'negative' about introduction of Reception baseline

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Most primary school heads are highly critical about the Government's plans to bring in the Reception Baseline Assessment, a survey suggests, as a national pilot of the test gets underway.


Children protesting against the Reception Baseline during the 'march of the four-year-olds' earlier this year

Research commissioned by More Than A Score has found that most primary school heads are overwhelmingly against bringing in the test for four-year-olds, calling it 'totally unnecessary' and 'one of the most poorly conceived ideas I have experienced in my 30+ years of teaching'.

A national pilot of the Reception Baseline Assessment starts in thousands of primary schools this term.

The campaign group commissioned Dr Alice Bradbury from the UCL Institute of Education at University College London to carry out research into headteachers' views on primary assessment.

Although it was intended to focus primarily on Key Stage 2 SATs, the research has produced a wealth of data which reveals headteachers’ broader concerns with an assessment system that is growing rather than shrinking. Some of this data relates to the new Reception Baseline Assessment, which will be introduced to schools in 2020/21, following the pilot.

The findings are based on 288 survey responses on primary assessment and 20 in-depth interviews with primary school headteachers and executive headteachers, carried out by Dr Bradbury. The full report will be published later this month.

As part of the research, headteachers were asked what their views were on the return of Baseline and about its use in assessing progress.

The majority of comments from the survey and from in-depth interviews with heads were negative about Baseline. The main criticisms were that it is unnecessary, inaccurate, unfair on children, and another way of placing schools under pressure.

Headteachers who commented on the introduction of reception baseline assessment (RBA) were overwhelmingly critical in their views: only 8 per cent provided positive responses while 86 per cent of comments were categorised as negative or qualified negative.

There were also concerns raised about the Government ignoring expert advice, not trusting schools and the cost of the scheme.

Dr Bradbury said, ‘Overall, the headteachers’ views on Baseline were largely negative, with even those who had some sympathy with the principle of assessing progress often expressing some concerns. There was some very negative language used in relation to this policy  which suggests that some headteachers feel very strongly that this policy will not benefit schools or children.’

Schools were asked to volunteer for the pilot by the Department for Education, and 9,600 schools have signed up.

While some have seen this as indicating support for the new Baseline, the study says that its findings suggest that headteachers are more motivated by the need to get to know the assessment before it becomes statutory.

More than A Score say that their understanding is that many schools are not telling parents that they are taking part in the pilot, while others are doing it as an information gathering exercise, not because they support it.

For example one school said, ‘It might give us a head start because it’s only a pilot and it doesn’t come in ‘til 2020, September. So, we can have a look at it and see what it’s like and that might give us a bit of guidance to what we need to do and we can prepare for it.’

They want to remind schools that they can still withdraw from taking part and tell parents that the baseline is not yet mandatory and they have the right to request that their child is not tested.

Survey findings

The survey was carried out between March and June 2019.

The respondents were leaders at community primary schools, faith schools, academies and other schools, with a range of Ofsted ratings, ‘Good’ being the most common.

There were 160 written survey responses to the question ‘What are your views on the planned return of Baseline Assessment in Reception in 2020?’.

The responses were analysed and categorised into four groups:

  • Positive (8 per cent)
  • Unsure (11 per cent)
  • Qualified negative (13 per cent)
  • Negative (73 per cent)

While a small minority of respondents welcomed the introduction of RBA, nearly all did so with reservations. Comments included, 'This might be a good idea in the sense that it provides a clear benchmark for progress. However, schools will have to wait 7 years and a lot can happen to children in that time that could impact the results.'

Another said, 'Some form of assessment seems reasonable but the assessment process shouldn't take time and resources away from actually teaching / nurturing reception children.'

Dr Bradbury added, ‘These findings raise questions about the need to bring back Baseline and how it might affect children as they start school. Headteachers are frustrated that the problems which emerged in the last version of RBA have not been resolved and that this policy continues to disregard professional concerns about accuracy and the appropriateness of a test for four-year-olds.’

Nancy Stewart, spokesperson for More Than A Score, said, ‘Heads agree with education experts and parents: this scheme is a waste of everyone’s time and a waste of £10 million. It has no basis in academic theory or even simple logic. It is simply another way for the Government to judge schools, using unreliable and unfair testing methods. A batch of reception pupils will be used as guinea pigs when they should be settling into school and the government still can’t tell us how they’ll use the data which will be extracted from these four-year-olds.

‘It’s time for the Department for Education to admit failure and halt the roll-out of this pointless and damaging experiment.’

A Department for Education spokesperson said, ‘The reception baseline assessment is a quick check of a child's early language and ability to count when they start school to help inform teachers - nine in ten schools already carry out on-entry checks. 

‘We are confident that the Reception Baseline Assessment will lighten the load for schools, which will no longer have to carry out whole-class assessments at the end of year 2 or deal with the test papers and administration that comes with that, while also being stress-free for children.

‘We have been listening carefully to feedback we have received throughout the development process to ensure we get the experience right for pupils and schools.’

Headteachers' comments

'Ridiculous! There is nothing wrong with the way in which Early Years staff assess the children on entry in the Reception class at the moment. They don't need a 'formalised' way of doing this.'

'Pointless and won't tell us anything we didn't already know.'

'It is not possible to predict 11 year old attainment based on what they do in the first four weeks of reception. Also the age bias makes the test results invalid when some children have nearly a year's more life experience.'

'Baseline of some sort is essential in order to measure progress. But this is measuring progress from one curriculum to a different one. It doesn't work and shouldn't be made to.'

'Who really believes that assessing 4 and 5 year olds and using that as a benchmark for 7 years of progress is a good idea? Less than 20% of my pupils are at my school for their entire primary education.  What will this assessment tell me about my school?'

'I think this is inappropriate. In a time when children should be building their sense of belonging in a new school they should be spending time with all their new friends and teachers, not 20mins 1:1.'

'Terrible idea, children again are being asked to perform in a test and the time taken away from staff in which they have to complete it does not work in line with the EYFS ethos!
…the time spent doing these new assessments would be better spent getting to know the children, ensuring that they are settled, building resilience and confidence.'

'Is it worth it? Definitely not. I trust my teachers and they are very professional. They have been in Early Years for a long time.'

'Absolutely ridiculous. Just trust the teachers to carry out a baseline assessment and trust their judgement. It will be precious time wasted on tests when they should be getting to know the children.'

'Why should we ignore all the experts and what on earth are the government hoping to achieve?'

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